Mha Puja - A Unique Newah Tradition
the worship of the inner self,
is unique to Newa people. Newars
believe that one needs to
understand and respect oneself
before he/she can understand
others. Mha puja is purification,
strengthening and understanding
of oneself. Mha puja carries all
the grandeur that a typical Newa
festival or ritual possesses. It
also is distinct from other
Hindu or Buddhist worships in
that it is the worship of
oneself and not the usual
worship of Gods and Goddesses or
others. Mha puja exposes the
relationship of a person with
the surrounding nature and the
cosmos. Understanding of one's
role in life makes him/her more
knowledgeable and unselfish.
Worshipping and blessing oneself
to achieve unselfishness and
generosity is unique by itself.
Mha puja is also for prosperity
and physical well being. No
other Newar festival is solely
devoted to enriching oneself
both physically and spiritually.
The religious and spiritual
aspects of Mha puja fall
perfectly in line with the socio-
religious nature of Newar
festivals. Incidentally, Mha
puja is performed and celebrated
on the New Year's Day giving it
additional social flavor.
Mha puja is celebrated with as much vigor as any other important festival. According to Hindu religion, soul or the inner self never dies. Only the body which the soul uses as a vehicle dies. The soul gets to be born in a bodily form (human, animal, plant, etc.) according to its performance in the past incarnations. Human life is considered the superior being at the top of the life cycle. It is interesting to note that Mha puja perfectly fits into this popular Hindu mythology and yet it is unique to Newa culture. The worship of the divinity in oneself takes place in a sophisticated, interesting and exhilarating atmosphere. The elaborateness with which Mha puja is performed exemplifies the Newa tradition of well organized and devoted rituals on a grand scale.
Mha puja is conducted mostly in the evening or the afternoon to make sure that Mha puja of Aagandya (the family Goddess) and Mha puja of Goddess Taleju Bhabani at the three palaces in Khwapa (Bhaktapur), Yen (Kathmandu) and Yala (Lalitpur) have been completed by the high Newar priests. These Mha puja ceremonies of the Goddesses are not accessible to the general public. It is said that at the time of Newar Kings, the king, the priests and some high ranking Newars were able to verbally communicate with the Goddesses through tantricism and they helped perform the Mha puja. The regular Mha puja found in every Newar household is usually performed on the floor in the dining area. Newars residing outside Nepal miss this grand event very much and the details seem increasingly interesting. Basic elements of Mha puja are the same for all Newars. Some procedural details may vary from family to family.
Manda (Mandala) is an essential part of Mha puja celebration. First the floor (usually tiled or plastered) is purified by sprinkling holy water collected from a sacred stream. Next Mandalas are created on the floor in front of the row of seats for the family members and elsewhere. The total number of Mandalas exceeds the number of people in the household by three. One at the top of the line, which is usually smaller in size and separate from the rest, is for the House-God. This is followed by one for each and every member of the household and two additional ones at the end that are at right angles to the main row. The last two Mandalas are for the ever-watching Yamaraj and Jamaraj, the ambassadors of Death who are always ready to take sinners to hell. Each Mandala is carefully prepared on the floor by following an elaborate procedure. A set of closely spaced concentric circles are first drawn in each Manda area by employing a mustard oil soaked cloth piece wrapped around a flower plant stem or a pencil. It may be worth mentioning here that Mha puja stresses in strong , long lasting, bright, healthy, fragrant, and such other things with positive connotations and only materials that are considered clean are utilized.
Oil marks last longer just as Ita (oiled strand of strings) burns longer. Circles signify completeness. On the top of the oil rings a beautiful and artistic geometrical shape which constitutes the core of the Manda, is created. The markings are done in yellow Potaye (yellow mustard powder). On the outside is a large ring enclosing a smaller one within which two squares are overlapped to form eight triangular shapes. Abhir (vermilion powder) is spread along the various Potaye lines. A handful of paddy and rice mixture is placed on each of the four triangles along the north-south and east-west lines with respect to the worshipper (worshipped) and one at the center of the Mandala.
The worship is started the same way as when worshipping God. Except this time each step is carried out first with the House-God followed by the members of the family and then Yamaraj and Jamaraj at the end. Nusala, a few drops of water in the right hand palm thrown into the worshipper's mouth serves to purify the worshipping body. The pancha patra (pure water vessel) and pujabhu, the plate with worship material such as rice, flowers, taye (popped rice), vermilion powder are first recognized by offering water, rice and vermilion powder. Everybody then worships his or her own Mandala. The Mandala is used as a medium to present the various offerings to the self. Usually a Newar Brahmin or the Nakin (the eldest female in the household) or somebody deputed by the Nakin goes over each step of the worship and also takes care of the worship for the House-God and Yamaraj and Jamaraj. Dhun, Dhupayen (special incense of local variety) lighted and put on each of the five paddy/rice lump in each Manda, spreads the festive fragrance around the worship area. Offer of fragrant incense pleases the soul and hopefully, makes the person's life successful and fragrant.
Next comes the very important offer of light. Two Itaa (hand-woven cotton strands soaked in oil) about two and a half feet long, are lighted at each end and offered to the worshipped who accepts by chanting in Sanskrit - "Swah prakashah mahatejo sarbapatti bidapaham. Sabhayabhyamtaram jyoti deepoyam pratigrihyatam." Newars use Sanskrit quite a bit when it comes to worships. The light is accepted to enhance one's inner supreme brightness and to drive away any possible problems. The blessing is for the person to be able to keep shining bright like the burning Itaa for a long, long time. The four lighted ends occupy the locations of the four outer paddy/rice lumps in the Mandala. Soaking of Itaa with mustard oil makes it last longer. The lights are kept on through the completion of the whole Mha puja process. Light, which is considered as one of the five elements used to create the universe (the other four are air, water, earth, and sky), has a special meaning in worships. The offer of light spiritually brightens the inner self, makes it more powerful and keeps anything evil at bay.
Sagan (or Swagan) is another very important part of Mha puja. Offering of Swagan to a person is usually made to reward some extraordinary and meaningful achievement. Dhau (yogurt) Swagan is first offered with blessings. Dhau Swagan involves accepting on the forehead a composite mixture of rice, taye, vermilion powder and yogurt. Dhau Swagan on the forehead unveils the shining and cheerful face enjoying a great celebration. Next comes the all important Khen (egg) Sagan. Khen Sagan constitutes the offering of Swataa (the trio of egg, fish, and meat) on the left hand (for some the right hand) and local wine (liquor) on the right hand. Swataa signifies man's victory and control over animal beings living in cell, water and land. Wine marks the celebration of the occasion. Amidst fragrant air and numerous candle-like lights from burning Itaa carefully orchestrated around splendid Mandalas, the holder of Swataa can not help but be ecstatic.
Flowers are offered for blooming and fragrant life. A garland of 'Gweswaan' flower is worn around the neck. Gweswaan is sturdy, is not easily worn and torn like some other flowers and signifies blessings of long lasting and successful life. Garland also signifies victory. Jajanka is worn by the worshipper (worshipped) like garland. Jajanka is made of many rounds of a white cotton thread forming a circle of about two feet in diameter and tied with a small piece of red cloth in order to have no ends. Jajanka symbolizes the integration of the beginning with the end. It is about creation, maintenance and fullness of life.
Offering of a variety of fruits, nuts and sweets is for a fruitful and resourceful life. The walnut is tough outside but carries tasty nut inside. 'Tahsi' fruit has thin skin and provides tasty sweet and sour fruit. Singali (the local chestnut) is hard outside and tasty inside. Sugarcane stem is tough outside but provides sweet juice for consumption. These offerings are aimed at having a strong body with a pure soul. The relationship of a human with nature is also exposed. Variety of sweets shaped like the Star, the Moon, etc. adds sweetness and fun to Mha puja. Yamaraj and Jamaraj are witnesses to the Mha puja and they are supposed to stay away because of the physical and spiritual energy gained through the various offerings. For example, it is said that Yamaraj and Jamaraj could not even touch a person who has performed the year's Mha puja unless and until the walnut shell rots, which is considered highly unlikely.
The final purification of the soul and the blessings come from the Nakin or Purohit with a shower on the head of a mixture of paddy, flowers, pieces of fruits, abhir (vermilion powder), aakhen (hand-milled rice) and taye in a kule (wooden or bronze container about a half gallon size). All during the puja, the Itaa keep burning, the incense keeps spreading fragrance and the colorful Mandalas keep cheering the mood. Completion of Mha puja is achieved after the Nakin or Purohit drags tuphi (local broom) from House-God's Mandala all the way down to Jamaraj's Mandala.
Mha puja can be viewed as providing a definition of life. One should learn about oneself and respect one's role in the world. By understanding oneself first, a person has a better chance of understanding others. Self purification and blessings make one stronger. Understanding of oneself as being only a part of the universe system makes one unselfish and more responsible. The social aspect of Mha puja is no less important. Celebration and associated feasting by family members with Itaa lights all around on Mandalas helps strengthen the family relationship. Unlike other occasions, Mha puja is for each and every member individually.
Newah traditions are ritual filled. Newars are famous for the numerous festivals they celebrate and the extravagant feasts they enjoy. A lot of these involve worship of the Divine, as with other Hindu, Buddhist or other traditions. Some of the occasions are unique to Newars. An example besides Mha puja, is the Ihin, the process of symbolic marriage of Newar girls before puberty to Lord Vishnu so that they are never widowed. These traditions unique to Newah culture are designed to suit Newar beliefs on life and the surrounding nature. The grandeur with which Newah traditions are observed can hardly be found elsewhere. Mha puja exemplifies the uniqueness of Newah traditions. Mha puja is unique amongst the various Newah traditions in that it is the only occasion when a person worships himself or herself. Because of religious and social implications and the understanding it tries to bring about oneself and the surrounding nature, Mha puja can be expected to be observed by Newars forever.